Wired for Success
For Berkeley-trained Sung-Mo “Steve” Kang, the work of a university chancellor is a lot like engineering. “Think of integrated circuits,” says Kang (Ph.D. ’75 EECS), who in March began his second year at the helm of UC Merced. Just as a chip relies on a network of connections to operate smoothly, so does a college campus. With that in mind, Kang is taking a collaborative approach to building his young institution into a world-class research university.
“I emphasize connection, interconnection, connectivity,” says Kang, former dean of the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz. A renowned electrical engineer, Kang assumed the chancellorship of the University of California’s 10th and newest campus in March 2007. The first in his family to go to college, Kang became the first Korean American to head a major research university.
Kang, 63, a proponent of seizing challenges, “jumped” at the chance to take the job. “I was so excited to practice what I preach and join the pioneer culture here,” he says. The campus, which opened in September 2005, currently has 1,800 students and 90 full-time faculty. Plans call for an ambitious 810-acre expansion, future schools of medicine and management and a target enrollment within the next three decades of 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
To become acquainted with the region and get the word out about his campus, Kang spent the first 100 days of his chancellorship on an extensive listening tour. Traveling from Los Angeles to Sacramento, he met with operators of oil fields in Bakersfield, Hmong strawberry pickers in Merced and students in area community colleges, high schools, even elementary schools.
Kang’s native South Korea is thousands of miles from California’s agricultural midsection, but the chancellor shares common bonds with many of the students on campus. More than half of Merced’s students are the first in their family to attend college, and many come from low-income households. Kang’s family suffered financial and other hardships during the Korean War, so he had to earn a scholarship to attend college at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J.
“I came with $200 in my pocket,” he recalls. After graduating summa cum laude in electrical engineering in 1970, Kang went on to earn his master’s at the State University of New York at Buffalo before coming to Cal for his doctorate.
In a word, Kang says, his UC Berkeley education was “wonderful.” Last year, he and his wife, Mia, established student scholarships at UC Merced named for his Berkeley mentors — Professor Leon Chua and Engineering Dean Emeritus Ernest S. Kuh — and their wives. The holder of 14 patents, Kang helped develop the world’s first 32-bit microprocessor chips. Among his many honors, he received UC Berkeley’s Outstanding Alumnus Award in Electrical Engineering in 2001 and the 2005 Mac Van Valkenburg Award from the IEEE Circuits and Systems Society, recognizing his outstanding technical contributions and leadership.
Upbeat about UC Merced’s potential, Kang nonetheless says the environmental permitting involved in expanding the campus “was much more complex than I thought.” The campus already has outgrown its original 105 acres, forcing the university to lease offices in town and bring in modular buildings. Expansion, says Kang, is crucial to attracting top-notch faculty, particularly in laboratory sciences, and talented students.
The campus has entered a phase that Kang calls “UC Merced 2.0.” He foresees an innovative center of higher learning distinguished by academic excellence and international partnerships. It will also be known for its outreach to underserved populations and programs that address air quality, poverty, health care and other problems facing the San Joaquin Valley. Already, Merced’s newly launched research institutes are exploring the natural resources of the Sierra Nevada and Central Valley as well as the diverse world cultures in the university’s backyard. “We need to make the most of where we are,” Kang says.